“Small ball” is quickly expanding its reach in the NBA, and that really hit a peak this season. The Knicks converted Carmelo Anthony to power forward, and he led the league in scoring. The Thunder often went to three-guard lineups flanked by Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison, thriving in those lineups. The league’s defending champions, the Miami Heat, have relied on small ball possibly more than any other team in the league between their combination of LeBron James/Shane Battier/Chris Bosh frontcourts and three-guard lineups.
Many other teams gave small ball a look this season, including the Rockets, the Nuggets, and the Lakers. What is small ball exactly? As the name implies, small ball sacrifices size for smaller, quicker players. Small ball lineups often feature three-guard lineups, wing players playing power forward, and/or a lack of a traditional center.
This goes hand-in-hand with a more uptempo, perimeter-oriented attack, resulting in more three-point shots and more points. Shooting, ball movement and spacing are all critical aspects of the strategy. The Knicks and the Rockets both broke the NBA season record for three-pointers attempted over a season due in large part to their use of small ball lineups.
This phenomenon, sweeping the NBA, might be a very intriguing approach for the Blazers to consider. While their starting lineup would appear to be set, they employ players on their bench that make the idea of turning to small ball as a change-of-pace option à la the Thunder a very enticing option. Their backup big men aren’t proven, whereas their backcourt is ridiculously deep and filled with shooters. Three-point shooting and high-octane offense is a great fit for this team.
Starting with the backcourt, the Blazers feature Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews, Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe. These are all players known for their three-point shooting above anything else. With that type of depth in three-point shooters, they have a very strong rotation to utilize for small ball three-guard lineups. These are players that the defense will have to respect as shooters. Matthews in particular is capable of holding down bigger wing players defensively due to his bulk, and is a natural fit for a similar role to what Thabo Sefolosha does on the Thunder.
Power forward is often the most pivotal position in small ball lineups, because it’s the one with the mismatch. It’s important for the player at this position to be able to defend true power forwards and hit the glass, as well as be able to shoot the ball. Superstars like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Durant have taken on this role for their teams, but it’s also been managed by Chandler Parsons, Shane Battier and Metta World Peace.
Dorell Wright, a natural small forward, has proved himself in the past in a stretch 4 role and sees himself as able to fulfill that role for the Blazers. Nicolas Batum has played sparingly at power forward throughout his career, but has the capability of defending power forwards and will offer prolific three-point shooting as well.
Because of his range and mobility, LaMarcus Aldridge is a terrific fit for small ball as the “center”. He can spot up in the midrange to allow space for backdoor cuts, or the Blazers can run some 4-out 1-in action to take full advantage of the spacing through Aldridge’s isolation game against slower centers. The pick-and-rolls with Aldridge, which the Blazers love to go to, would become an even deadlier weapon as Aldridge being the only big on the floor would leave a lot of open space down low. With a speedy drive-and-kick player capable of finishing at the rim or making the pass to the open shooter in Damian Lillard, it puts opposing teams in a difficult situation.
Considering those players as part of a small ball lineup, two things are noticeable right away. One is that there will be a lot of outside jumpers taken, and a lot of space as a result. The Blazers were already a strong shooting team before, as Lillard, Matthews and Batum all cracked the top-10 in three-pointers made per game last year. Adding more shooters to the mix will only make three-point shooting even more of a weapon for the Blazers.
The other thing you’ll notice, however, is a potential lack of defense. Aldridge at center won’t work well, since he struggles to challenge shots at the rim and doesn’t have the bulk to match up with some of the stronger centers in the West. Wright’s iffy defensively regardless of position, and a mismatch certainly won’t help. Finally, you have the trio of Lillard, Williams and McCollum. Williams is a big minus sign defensively, and both Lillard and McCollum face the learning curve of playing defense in the NBA (Lillard will have a year’s experience under his belt, which will hopefully mean an improvement from last season’s performance).
Of course, defense isn’t really the point of small ball lineups. Small ball is uptempo basketball with plenty of points scored both ways, and the hope is that you outrun and out-shoot the other team into submission. Matthews and Batum represent the Blazers’ best options for salvaging what they can out of their defense, the same as last season. I pointed out Matthews as fulfilling a Sefolosha-esque role, and Batum has the length to bother power forwards despite his 200 lbs frame. Batum playing small forward alongside Wright is another possibility, if the Blazers wanted him to defend a certain perimeter player.
Alternatively, the Blazers could stick Robin Lopez in at center. He’s more of a traditional center than Aldridge or Leonard, but that’s viable as well since center isn’t necessarily a featured part of the offense. In fact, sticking a traditional center right under the rim could lead to even more spacing, as the Rockets demonstrated with Omer Asik. This would alleviate some of the defense and rebounding concerns that playing a complete small ball lineup might raise, making it harder for opposing bigs to take advantage.
The Blazers, like many other teams, dabbled with small ball last season, although not very much. Victor Claver was tested as a stretch 4, though it didn’t go very well. The Blazers’ fourth-most played lineup was a Lillard/Matthews/Batum/Luke Babbitt/Aldridge lineup. Predictably, this lineup was strong offensively, averaging a wild 136.6 points per 48 minutes on 50.6% shooting from the floor and 41.5% from three. Obviously, sample size is a major factor (despite being the fourth-most played lineup, this lineup played just 79 minutes), but it is intriguing to see that level of success and imagine it taken to another level with Babbitt, now out of the league, replaced by Wright.
The following play against the Warriors highlights the spacing and the opportunity for three-pointers that small ball offers the Blazers. Lillard gets the ball off of the inbound, leading to a Lillard pick-and-pop with Aldridge. It’s not cleanly run, but the amount of spacing they get at the rim is clear. Aldridge drags his defender right up to the three-point line, leaving the rim totally unguarded. For any other defender to help, they’d have to shift away from their check. The most important part of all of this is that every one of those players is behind the three-point line. A small ball lineup where the Blazers can have three spot-up shooters as well as their pick-and-pop combination is incredibly deadly, as it puts the Warriors into a pick-your-poison scenario between the easy layup and the open three.
Another example is this play against the Bobcats. It starts off with a pick-and-roll between Lillard and Aldridge, similar to the last play, but this one sees Babbitt curl up to the elbow to receive the pass. The most important part of this play is ball movement. Aside from Lillard and himself, Babbitt has the choice to pass the ball to one of three players as soon as he receives the pass. Wes Matthews is open in the near corner as his defender gambled on the original pass to Babbitt. Aldridge is making his cut to the rim off of the pick-and-roll. Finally, there’s Batum on the far wing, whose defender shifted far too close to the action on the near side.
With significantly better players than Luke Babbitt and Victor Claver in the fold, it would be in the Blazers’ best interests to take a more extensive look at small ball this season. Because of what it gives up in size and defense, it won’t always be the best strategy to go to. Against the Dwight Howards and the Marc Gasols of the Western Conference, they should absolutely be sticking to traditional lineups.
That said, however, small ball does plays towards the strengths of the team Neil Olshey has built this offseason. Offense first, defense second. A lot of running, a lot of ball movement, and a LOT of three-pointers. For this team, the trade-offs of small ball work out well enough for them to consider running smaller lineups. They won’t exactly be the Miami Heat, but it could certainly be the extra production they need to make the playoffs.